a mug of builder’s tea
A pale February light crept through the window. At a table in the corner two men played cribbage. The peg board held broken match sticks, like bonsai boles after a hurricane.
The wife of the white-haired man brought mugs of tea and a plate layered with arrowroot biscuits. Neither player acknowledged her nor uttered thanks. Concentration was paramount and although no fragment of weekly pension was being risked, pride overflowed the kitty of counters. The outcome was as important as any cup final.
They had played two afternoons each week since they retired from working at adjacent lathes, wearing identical bib and brace overalls, though different-sized steel toe-capped boots. The venue was always Jack’s bungalow as Harry, a widower, lived with his unmarried daughter who treated their dwelling as a prestigious museum. Every surface displayed an exhibit and no speck of dust endured for longer than ten seconds. Harry was embarrassed to invite his friend and Jack was nervous to accept. Maisie, Jack’s wife, was happy. Her husband was contented and Harry, for whom she’d always had a soft spot, received a few hours peace.
That late winter afternoon Maisie took a phone call from Harry’s daughter.
‘Maisie, its Dawn, I’m afraid Dad won’t be coming today, he’s had a funny turn. I’m waiting for the doctor to come.’
‘Oh dear, sorry to hear that, please let us know what the doctor says, and of course if there’s anything we can do—’
‘I’ll ring you as soon as I know something.’
Jack couldn’t settle. As soon as Maisie had told him, he was like a moth with a myriad of lights. He went into his greenhouse but could find no chore that needed his attention. In the shed he picked up a saw, but his hand was shaking so couldn’t risk damaging it or the wood he was working on. Maisie made him a cup of tea, but it sat on the table adjacent to his armchair.
‘I wish she’d ring,’ he said to himself, but loud enough for Maisie to hear.
‘Sit down, Dawn will let us know as soon as there’s some news.’
The five o’ clock news bulletin had just begun when the telephone rang. Jack snatched it from its cradle. ‘Yes?’
‘It’s Dawn, the doctor says it was a stroke and he’s rung for an ambulance—’
‘Right, you go with him and I’ll bring the car and come and find you at the hospital.’
‘Thank you Jack.’
The reception desk at The Royal was staffed by volunteers. It was twenty minutes before a sympathetic woman was able to locate the patient. She told Jack that his friend was still undergoing assessment. He sat in the cafeteria with a mug of tea. He watched the comings and goings, feeling he was outside looking in, watching a film the title of which he didn’t know.
Almost two hours had passed when Dawn wearily approached him. He stood up, seeing from her expression that she was bearing sad news.
She shook her head and looked away. He held out his arms but she didn’t step into them, so he took her elbow and guided her to a chair and watched as hands covering her face, her body shook. He drew up another chair and sat beside her. He offered a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his blazer and eventually as she noticed his action, she took it, whispering her thanks.
Drizzle dulled the scene as mourners gathered at the Crematorium. Within minutes the chapel had filled. Jack avoided using his tuneless voice during the singing of the hymns, in case it deserted him when his turn came to speak.
On hearing his name, he stepped forward opening the pages of his prepared text. When he looked down his glistening eyes found no point of focus. He sniffed, raised his head and set his eyes on the wooden cross over the door by which they had entered.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a privilege to talk about Harry Guest, albeit one I hadn’t wished for until many years hence. We joined Jennings and Field on the same day fifty two years ago. Young, full of ourselves, eager to learn our trade and compete for places in the Works football team. In fact for ten years we spent weekdays at adjoining benches and Saturday afternoons alongside each other in the familiar red and white strip.
He was a quiet man, but when he did speak, it was worth listening. He was generous and modest and what few people know is that he once saved my life. I failed to properly fit a steel rod in the chuck of my lathe and Harry recognising the sound as the job came free pushed me out of the way. He accepted my thanks and a handshake and we never spoke of it again.
He was a competitor. Since we retired, we played crib twice every week and although no cash was involved, he loved to win. In fact that, as well as his grin when he pegged out, is what I shall miss most. God bless you Harry and thank you for being a good friend.
As Jack took his seat, Maisie patted his wrist and offered a handkerchief.
It was six weeks later when Dawn called on Maisie and Jack.
‘I found these and wondered if you’d like them?’ She handed Jack a black box. When he opened it he found three medals. On the back of one was engraved John Perry. Jack frowned, shaking his head.
’Apparently Dad was chosen for the League team and when they presented them at the end of the season, one of them hadn’t been inscribed, so he had your name put on.’
’I was never good enough ...’ Jack could say no more as sobs racked his body.